How do institutions create a new generation of engineers?

Fewer than half of engineering students enter the profession, so how do institutions encourage the uptake of engineering post-studies

Fewer than half of engineering students in the UK enter professional engineering occupations, a 2016 report found.

Formula Student – a university-level engineering competition – is just one tactic Cardiff University is using to tackle the issue. It’s hoped that project-based learning will kick-start students interest in careers in STEM.

The competition challenges students from around the world to – in just one year – design, build and race a single-seat racing car. The Cardiff University team won the 2017 prize making them the first UK team in the competition’s 21-year history to claim the title.

While the 2016 Royal Academy of Engineering report, The UK STEM Education Landscape, suggests more innovative teaching techniques and increased employer engagement as the solution to its findings, many institutions don’t have the funding required. 

The car, named Gwyneth (after the mother of famous Welsh Formula One driver, Tom Pryce), took the team to victory and benefitted from their courses’ project-based learning. A testament to their skill, the Cardiff team won a prize at the competition for the Best Use of Virtual Tools for their new engine from Jaguar Land Rover.

The team used a Triumph Street Triple engine but had to devise a way to limit the noise it produced to keep within competition guidelines. By recording the sound of the engine and using MATLAB to create a fast Fourier transform (FFT) of the data, the team could track the resonant frequencies the engine produced as the RPMs were increased.

The team relied on software to manage the huge amount of data generated from the cars during testing. Dotted with sensors and equipped with Wi-Fi, the cars transmitted information to the pits where the Cardiff team made data-driven decisions on controller settings. 

Team member Dewi Griffiths said: “I remember learning MATLAB in my first-year thinking, ‘Hang on, I’m not a computer scientist, I’m an engineer. When am I ever going to use this?’ Then, all of a sudden, I saw how all the skills we had learned could cut down the amount of time I spend on basic tasks, freeing my time for hands-on practical engineering.”

The team also utilised data analytics to simulate varying factors like the geometry, the spring weights, and the dampening of the car.

The UK has identified the need to develop more home-grown engineering talent and Cardiff University’s project-based learning seems to bridge the gap between studying and pursuing a career in engineering. Dewi is now pursuing a PhD and – with his hands-on expertise in the automotive domain, strong data analytics skills, and a foundation in mechanical engineering – he is secure in the knowledge he can gain entry to a range of engineering careers on graduation.

For those thinking about where best to undertake their university course, students can look for Institution of Mechanical Engineers accredited courses.